Phil Colbert was on his way to meet his father for lunch before his shift at an Arizona auto dealership in 2019 when he saw the flashing lights of a sheriff’s patrol car in his mirror. He made sure his hands were on the steering wheel, planted at 10 and 2 as his parents had taught him, and asked why he had been stopped.
“You can’t have anything hanging from your rearview mirror,” the La Paz County deputy, wearing a Blue Lives Matter wristband, told him.
The officer was referring to the tree-shaped air freshener dangling near the windshield but quickly moved on to other questions: Do you have any marijuana? Do you smoke marijuana? When was the last time you did smoke marijuana? Do you have any cocaine? To Mr. Colbert, who is Black, the air freshener seemed nothing more than a pretext for the driving equivalent of a stop-and-frisk.
“At that point, I was like, ‘This dude is coming up with anything. He’s just coming up with anything to talk to me or mess with me,’” said Mr. Colbert, 23, who recorded the traffic stop on his cellphone and ultimately was let off with a warning.
The air fresheners that dangle from rearview mirrors have been a ubiquitous accessory in cars for decades. But they may be treated as illegal in a majority of states, which have laws prohibiting objects near the windshield that can obstruct motorists’ views. They are part of a suite of low-level offenses, such as tinted windows or broken taillights, that civil rights advocates complain have become common pretexts for traffic stops that too often selectively target people of color.
The encounter this week in Minnesota that led to a police officer fatally shooting Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, began when officers initiated a traffic stop and raised the issue of a hanging air freshener, according to Mr. Wright’s mother, who talked to her son on the telephone moments before he was shot.
Look, I think if there’s one thing we know, it’s that the cops are also pulling over white guys whose back windows in their oversized overcompensating trucks are festooned with Trump stickers and Blue Lives Matter flags to the point that they can’t even see out of it.